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Evgeny Kissin: Jerusalem at Heart

Even though the pianist’s ‘Liszt – Recital Tour’ did not actually start out, as originally planned in Jerusalem, and instead started in Madrid, playing in Jerusalem for the first time was of great  moment to Kissin’s heart. As he put it (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten) Douay-Rheims Bible

I could not even begin to imagine the impact of this literal transcription. Kissin performs concerts in Tel Aviv on a regular basis, but this concert,  held on February 16th, (instead of as planned  on January 8th) was the first of its kind, his first Solo recital here and had a locally invested objective: to help raise funds for the Jerusalem Music Center.

The initiative for the concert, as Kissin told me, was based on his wish to perform in Jerusalem itself and, looking for this welcomed opportunity, he approached his friend, Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld.

As a member of the Center’s Advisory Board, Lady Weidenfeld, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Foundation and renowned pianist Murray Perahia, the organization’s president since 2009, obliged enthusiastically and the concert was planned as part of Kissin’s 2011 world tour.

The concert, to honor Liszt’s 200th bicentennial was held at the International Convention Center ’Binyanei hauma’  in Jerusalem to accommodate as many people as possible. This was part of a Liszt recital tour which put Jerusalem on the classical music map along with the usual venerable venues including Carnegie Hall, the latter on March 9th, 2011.

Situated within the picturesque neighborhood of ‘Mishkenot She’ananim’, near Jerusalem’s Old City, JMC was founded in 1973, inspired by the vision of legendary violinist and mentor to many great artists, Isaac Stern and Teddy Kollek, then eminent mayor of Jerusalem.

As an advanced training center for Israel’s young musical talents, JMC’s mission - as executive director Hed Sella in an interview with Sarah Carnvek explains, is not geared to discover the next prodigy, but is rather invested in helping talented young people to become all-round musicians.

Says Sella:”From the JMC point of view, we try to be apolitical and invite only those with the best musical quality. We are involved in several projects that see Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs playing together. We believe in coexistence.”

Without being a school, JMC provides a most formidable education, like the ‘Perlman Music Program’ that makes it possible for students to play in an orchestra under the baton of Maestro Yitzhak Perlman, as well as study chamber and classical Arabic music; and also sing in a chorus and receive individual lessons from a world class faculty.

Kissin agreed to donate proceeds from his Jerusalem concert to support the JMC training programs for young pianists at the center. According to Sella, “It was a solid reaffirmation of high esteem for Jerusalem’s culture.”

It most certainly was a gesture to honor Jerusalem, which had honored Kissin before. In 2010, Kissin was the recipient of an honorary doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

conferment of  honorary doctorates

Kissin has increasingly made public notice of his heritage, with the intent to ideologically stand by the Jewish people and halt anti-Semitic tendencies.

A written interview with the Jerusalem Post in January 2011, depicts Kissin’s strong sentiments, towards his Jewish identity: “…In spite of the fact, that I… grew up in an assimilated family and knew nothing about Jewish history, let alone religion…when I was a child, I wrote a will (yes!) The content of which, I believe, reveals a lot. It read as follows: ‘when I die, bury me in a forest…with the following inscription: Here lies Evgeny Kissin, a son of the Jewish people, a servant of music…See, that’s how I identified myself already as a child.”

When living in England, Kissin was exposed to rising anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments. He felt an obligation, being in the public eye, to come to Israel’s defense.

My article examined his public outrage voiced in his open letter to the BBC.

His fan site incorporates a library that he describes with statements like these….”Authors who are mainly non- Jews, many of them Arabs, giving interviews in support of Israel….I started to speak up in public, in order to counter the raging anti-Israel hysteria in much of the world.Since I was well known and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were coming to my concerts and buying my recordings, I felt that I had to tell them:”If you like my art, this is who I am, who I represent and what I stand for.” Kissin explains his convictions to his fans on his website with essential historic facts about Israel, in an attempt to counteract anti-Israel propaganda. While I was very familiar with Kissin’s commitment of speaking out in support of Israel’s democratic rights and obligations, I became only recently aware of his heartfelt love of and proficiency in the Yiddish language.

Doomed by the threat of extinction, Yiddish was the vernacular language of Jews living in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II, and has become a national treasure of Jewish culture. In an interview in Yiddish, with Dr. Max Kohn on the video channel of the “Forverts” (the Yiddish version of the Forward), Kissin explains how he taught himself the ‘Alef Beis’, the Hebrew letters necessary to read Yiddish in its “Urtext.” He also promotes his CD, ‘On the Keys of Yiddish Poetry,’ featuring poems by Yiddish poets which Kissin recites in Yiddish. The interview (in Yiddish as well), is available on Youtube. He also has done live presentations in Yiddish at Verbier and Montpelier.

At the Jerusalem concert, the Russian keyboard master played for a practically sold out hall, despite the short notice change of date. The prevailing language heard, besides Hebrew, was Russian. As I sat next to an older lady, who was muttering comments in Russian, I gathered she was a piano teacher. We were sitting in the front row, and she watched every move on stage critically. She might as well have been an acquaintance of Kissin’s own great teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.

The great school of Russian-Jewish musicianship prevails in Israel after a significant wave of Russian Jew emigration in the Seventies and Eighties. This is made evident, for example, by the large percentage of Russian descent musicians within the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Kissin was celebrated throughout the performance, with young and just as enthusiastic older fans approaching the stage and handing over one bouquet of flowers after the other.

Immediately following the concert, a flock of admirers, music students and all, followed Kissin to the make shift Greenroom, of the Convention Center. One could think this was a scene from a Rock concert; fans hovered around Kissin, struggling to get a glimpse, an autograph, a photo from their idol.

At the Greenroom, a very friendly and courteous Kissin, greeted his fans, including myself. We had been in touch over email, but it was the first time we met in person.

Article first published as Evgeny Kissin: Jerusalem at Heart on Blogcritics.



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